You can go to any large American art museum and see Old Master paintings: Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer, and more are all well represented in our nation, even though the painters worked and sold their works in various European nations centuries ago. It might seem that such aesthetic riches would naturally spread themselves to our nation, but that the paintings are now on American walls only happened around the turn of the last century. It was not a matter of sharing the Old Masters all around the world, but was a product of deliberate, aggressive acquisition. In _Old Masters, New World: America's Raid on Europe's Great Pictures_ (Viking), art historian Cynthia Saltzman has told how the flood of Old Masters to America happened, looking at specific masterpieces, collectors, and dealers. It is an amazing story of the time when English aristocrats (most of the acquisitions described here came from Britain) were low on rents, and low on land value because American grain was so much cheaper. On the other side of the ocean, certain individual Americans acquired huge wealth due to the Industrial Revolution. Looked at this way, it seems a simple matter of one side having the goods and the other having the money, but there was also competition among the collectors and dealers, all of which Saltzman describes with verve.
After the Civil War and during the industrial boom, Americans began concentrating on culture. When Henry Gurdon Marquand, the railroad and banking tycoon, was in England in 1886 on an acquisition trip for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was in a private gallery, not nearly the finest in Britain, but Saltzman writes that it "was grander than the hodgepodge of mostly mediocre pictures lodged in two rooms at the back of the Metropolitan's second floor." Looking at a van Dyke in the gallery, Marquand realized it was finer than any painting he had seen in America, including his own extensive collection. Marquand came away with four Old Masters, and thus the boom began. Another of the collectors profiled here was Henry Clay Frick, the violently anti-union head of Carnegie Steel. He liked portraits and landscapes; he never purchased a nude. Charles Schwab, another Carnegie partner, observed, "He seemed to lavish on art all the passion that he might have bestowed on human beings." Tycoons buying art is one story, and a fairly familiar one, but Saltzman also pays attention to the different dealers and advisors who helped enable the purchases. Professional art scholar Bernard Berenson figures often here, usually helping to arrange sales to Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. Berenson was a social climber who clearly loved his partnerships with his wealthy clients, and made himself invaluable to them. When Peter Widener, the aging trolley car magnate, needed his collection evaluated, Berenson's wife described the collector "trotting around and saying meekly `Mr. Berenson, is this a gallery picture, or a furniture picture, or must it go to the cellar?'"
The art that was brought over here served to bolster collectors' self-worth. Sure, they were just manifesting greed but in a different way than in their workaday lives. As the collectors took more paintings over the decades, they complained about how much the prices were going up, but they did not complain about how much more valuable their assets were becoming. By the time the boom was over, most of them donated the works to museums, or made their own museums. A case could be made that these Old Master paintings provided an immediate art education for millions of Americans, that American artists were heavily influenced by them, and that American art in the last half of the twentieth century thereby became the most influential in the world. Saltzman's book, with its written portraits of collectors and dealers, provides an astonishing picture of an art craze that affected history, and the likes of which will not be seen again. We are unlikely ever to hear anyone speak of taste in acquisitions like Isabella Stewart Gardner did, to her advisor Berenson, when Rembrandt was every collector's favorite: "You know, or rather, you don't know, that I adore Giotto, and really, I don't adore Rembrandt. I only like him."